Day 2 of 100 days: writing on flying through Space and Time with Kak Channthy and The Cambodian Space Project
Somewhere along the freeway from Washington DC to New York City, I asked Channthy “Hey Oun, what do you think is your best achievement? … I mean Oun… you’ve done so many awesome things, what do you think is the best thing you’ve done?”
Without even a pause or blink of an eye she responded “I have learnt to speak English”. I asked “really? that’s it? that’s the best?” “Yes Bong, I’m so happy now I speak English”. And she meant it. Everything else was okay but being able to simply talk to everyone what the biggest thrill of her life.
Soon we arrived in NYC and before we’d even stopped to check in and find our accom for the night we were immersed in an incredible piece of ‘immersive’ theatre… something totally unexpected and completely thrilling… all we’d been aware of was that we’ve be the house party band (unannounced secret show as The Angkor Watts) right after the off Broadway smash hit Sleep No More finished up… instead we were treated to some wonderful hospitality by Jonathan Hochwald and his team at the McKittrick Hotel (a 6 floor theatre set) then lead into this mind blowing theatre which can be described as somewhere between Macbeth and David Lynch. Channthy (and the rest of the CSP) did not stop talking about this work for the rest of our epic, rapid, road trip of USA and all the way back home to Cambodia. You see, apart from Channthy being chuffed by her ‘biggest achievement’ learning English, Thy had also become very keen on the idea of storytelling, especially enjoying the ‘diva treatment’ of being centre stage in Theatre or film. At one point, when someone explained and translated the word diva she said she hated that description, hated people saying ‘hey superstar’ and all that… she was just a very down-to-earth and genuine person and this is most evident in this excellent interview recorded by Dan Davies for Kampot Radio shortly before Xmas 2017.
“Don’t call me ‘Superstar’ Bong”
“I’m not diva” “I am Channthy” but of course, to many of us, Channthy was indeed a diva and also a superstar. She was also very keen on singers such as Tina Turner, Nina Simone through to Grace Jones and Karen Carpenter. Her version of The Carpenter’s track Superstar is also sublime and hauntingly beautiful. We recorded this track for CSP’s last album and also as part of the song list we had been compiling as music for a new musical we had titled Yesterday Once More – based on Khmer Diva Poev Vannary and her own short-lived career and disappearance – assumed murder by the Khmer Rouge. More and more Channthy and I and the team around us were working to create ‘story telling’ works – music theatre – and now Yesterday, Once More might even be something that I must keep working on making and presenting posthumously without Channthy but with her in the sense that it’s a concept that should now be explored with even more depth of thought and consideration as a piece that not only explores the forgotten story of Poev Vannary but brings Channthy’s own spirit and her incredible legacy back centre stage where she deserves to be in any future work – a celebration of Channthy’s life and all she has given us.
Yesterday, Once More
The YOM work was mostly in my hands and my responsibility to assemble – the budget, the team, the band, the actors, dancers etc and work has been progressing on this piece, we had found enough support to purchase a stage, a sound system, to record music – several tracks or the era released on Spaced-Out in Wonderland – and to spend time refining the concept and soliciting venue and presenter partners, however, it still had a way to go… Channthy and I would chat regularly on aspects of what could or couldn’t be done… a speaking play or text based theatre work was still going to be a challenge. However, Channthy would talk about singers, Cambodian singers and the brutal and tragic demise of so many of the sirens of Cambodian rock’n’roll – Houy Meas, Pan Ron, Ros Sereysothea through to contemporaries such as Piseth Pilika and others who had either met grim ends or fled their homeland. Thy and I thought that YOM would not only be a great rock’n’roll stage play but also a way to pay tribute to the women of Cambodian song and to others, Karen Carpenter too and the the psychology of loneliness that can often be witnessed or felt in the stories of such superstar singers. But it’s also true that despite our talk on these idea, Thy herself would rather update and colorful than grim and dark though she was an artist who could achieve both – “Sometimes funny…for fun…sometimes from head…sometimes from heart”
I was already on my way to Phnom Penh on Feb 26th, Channthy’s birthday. Thy called me to say “hey Bong, you wanna come join me for Happy Birthday for me on boat?” “Yeah sure” I replied. “I’ll bring Mark Roy too, he’s coming back from Australia today and we wanna talk to you about a film… a little film about Yesterday, Once More story. You’re going to be in this right? We need to film later this week… ” Channthy’s response was “Yes, yes sure Bong… we talk about it later… Mark’s here? oh great, come my party, see you tonight Bong, it will be good”. Mark and I turned up and while we’d both arrived in PP to get busy shooting a film – 3 minutes of in-camera-edit super-8 film for a competition called Straight 8 – we really did need to meet, talk and plan a tight schedule based on creating a film called Flicker & Fade based on our Yesterday, Once More material. Thy was way to preoccupied with enjoying being with her girlfriends and family celebrating her birthday to discuss much so Mark and I hung out at the back of the little Mekong cruise ship and hatched plans.
Channthy sent me this photo of us the next day but apologized in advance and said she felt too tired to come for the first day of shooting – this is very unlike Thy who was always very professional in keeping her appointments not least paid gigs. She was sick and I knew that she’d recently been in hospital, really sick, she’d sent me a selfie and a copy of the doctors test result but insisted “Please don’t tell anyone…I don’t want people to worry about me”.
“Damn! It doesn’t look like we’re going to have Thy turning up this week” I apologised to Mark who’d flown over from Darwin specifically to make this film adventure happen and also to help us by working on shooting material that would add to the development of Yesterday, Once More. Mark had only recently returned to Cambodia after an 8 year hiatus, we’d met first time round when CSP has just become ‘a thing’ and Mark, at the Phnom Penh Post at the time, arranged the first proper article on our little baby Space Project. It made sense that we’d pick up again from where we’d left off.
Also, it made sense to cast someone new into the role of The Singer… we asked around and cast Paodavy Da as The Singer (based on Poev Vannary), Wesley Taller as The Foreigner and CSP’s very own Bong Sak as The Driver… we posted some words to articulate the ideas… then got down to shooting scenes on the fly…in Phnom Penh then onto Kampot, Kep and finally, a scene of 8 seconds with Bong Sak in Kampong Spue
Where you are going and where you really end up are two very different things. I should know, I’m a driver. But today I don’t have even have a car. Once I was Driver to kings, queens, heads of state … to the stars … but that was long ago. Memories flicker and fade, and names escape me. He was a Foreigner, she was the Singer, but I remember only her song …
The week of dashing across the Kingdom, spending hours on set-ups then squeezing off seconds of Super 8 at a time, was INTENSE.
Finally we came to the last day of shooting – Bong Sak was supposed to join us (for a paid gig) in Kep then Mark would shoot the last scene, jump in a taxi and head to the airport and back to his day gig on the docks in Darwin. Channthy sent a message late that day “Sorry….Bong Sak… he not coming… he busy”. What! the film Flicker & Fade was shaping up really well but it just wouldn’t make sense without the last character of the proposed menage a trois… we had to have The Driver… we had to have Bong Sak. I called Thy back, but she was adamant… no Sak. Plan B became apparent at the last minute “Mark… you’re going to have to order a taxi for 4am and see… if we can find a driver willing to drive you at this time… If he can take you to Bong Sak’s village in Kampong Speu” Mark agreed and said “Yes, gotta do it, I don’t have to be at the airport until 10am, let’s get him at sunrise. “Thy called back, “Yes, Bong… he okay for 5am, he’s up early, just get the taxi driver to phone for directions”.
After all this drama…a bit too much… I went back to bed and thought I’d have a message re the outcome once Mark was either on the plane or something else unscripted had happened… Here’s the message that came back in.
The trip to see Bong Sak this morning for the final shot of the movie was kinda weird. It went a bit like this:
Barang turns up at his rural Cambodian village in taxi at sunrise, pulls out film equipment, and, as the whole village watches, shoots a few seconds of Bong Sak holding a photograph of a Lincoln Continental. Then packs all the equipment back into the taxi, hands him $50, and drives off.
I’m reliably informed that Bong Sak’s vocabulary of English extends to approximately two words: “Awesome” and “Gorgeous”.
Great! a funny and fitting end to a crazy little film shoot! Still, I thought it was essential to have Channthy’s voice and again, I had hoped to record her in Phnom Penh but again she called to say sorry, I’m not feeling well, I can’t do it. Instead, I asked Jason Shaw (back home in Scotland) to quickly fish out a piece of Channthy’s vocal recorded for The Passenger, it’d also fit the soundtrack music I’d prepared. Jas sent back the track and it’s absolutely beautiful the moment Channthy’s voice sails in across a scene where we see the Singer (actress Poadavy Da) for the first time. In fact Poadavy really looked the part as did her co-star Wesley Taller as The Foreigner – a dude who records stuff, photos things… and of course, Bong Sak always looks the part. Bong’s got the kinda face that gets the part before there’s even any silly talk of a casting call or auditions.
It’s in the can!
Finally the film shoot wrapped up but of course, as a film that we wouldn’t get to see… it would go to London to a lab for processing then if it all worked, into the running for a screening at Straight 8 and if really good – a premiere screening at The Cannes Film Festival – fingers crossed. During the shoot, I cheated a bit and shot a digital cam over the shoulder of Mark Roy and his vintage Cannon Super 8, this was just to try and get timing of scenes to then add a soundtrack of music that would be sandwiched against the film in the lab. Again, we’ll have to wait to see the proper, finished work but here’s that Flicker & Fade mock-up with Channthy’s voice sailing in for a few moments of sublime beauty around 2:23
Early March Channthy sent me through some old photos, a very young looking Thy in one and another posing with a friend, both with pasty white looking faces… typically Channthy would record her voice but this time she only sent photos. Later a few more images came through, recent photos of herself and her brother out in a rubber plantation. In one of the photos Thy’s posing with a bowl of ‘milk’ sapped form the Rubber Tree… I immediately new that she must have taken the little trip she’d been talking about … a trip back in time… to a time in her life when she worked alone, starvation wages but enough to feed her family and send money home… it was by all accounts a scary (still many bandits around) and lonely job but something she often recalled and spoke about… almost with a fondness but certainly with some nostalgia and a feeling of having come a long long way from a life that seemed like another lifetime all together. She also spoke more recently of wanting to go back to Kampong Cham to try and find lost friends… apparently she did this… at first by asking around the local market and not succeeding but was later contacted by phone and found someone…who’s name escapes me… who was very dear to her and this reunion meant so much.
Just two days before Channthy died, I got a call from her asking if I’d was back in Phnom Penh, I’d told her I would be but had decided to stay on longer at my home base in Kampot. I’d made a decision to put CSP on hold for a couple of months and to return to Australia to start work – yet again – on writing a book about our first five years on the road together and together as The Cambodian Space Project. Of course, Thy and I had married as quickly as the whole CSP gypsy caravan had got rolling and within three years our marriage was over and our Space Ship flying through more than a touch of turbulence. Still, we loved each other and respected each other enough to hang in there. I was initially drawn to Thy by some deep spirit that I thought I recognised in her and it had been an almost instantaneous feeling, but I was also reserved and detached, I assumed much about her life but fell deeper in love as she found her own ways to tell me about who she really was… at first, meek and reserved but later telling me “no… I am not shy… like that” and becoming very much in control of her own self as a marionette, in her own image, playing out centre stage in a theatre of dreams that we’d both created.
Channthy’s voice, her laughter, her jokes, all her mannerisms will stay with me for the rest of my life and I don’t believe there will ever be a day when I don’t feel sadness and sorrow when I think of her and the unfair way her life has been cut so short. But I am left with not just my own memories, great memories of joy and happiness but also all Channthy’s remarkable recordings and images, a legacy that will not simply fade away and will be alive for new generations to share and discover, the remarkable life of the barefoot diva of Cambodia.
Memories do flicker & fade and details of the extraordinary life that Channthy has live will, no doubt, become immortalised as legend. I will keep writing and sharing my own recollections – as rambling as they may be – for 100 days in tribute to Channthy but more so to remind you that she has left behind her beautiful young son who, at just 13 year old, needs all the support we can give, please take a moment to donate to (or share the link) Kak Channthy Memorial Fund.
– Julien Poulson